Risk-Averse May Sees Danger on All Sides as Syria Action Looms

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(Bloomberg) -- If the U.K. joins U.S. and French military action against Syria, it would not only be the first time Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered forces into battle -- it would also be the kind of risk she instinctively dislikes.

Any attack could go wrong in multiple ways, resulting in British, Syrian civilian or Russian military casualties. Even if these scenarios are avoided, by taking action May would become at least partially responsible for the outcome of Syria’s seven-year civil war with little control over how it plays out.

Worse from May’s point of view, her main partner alongside French President Emmanuel Macron is the famously unpredictable Donald Trump. Taking part also gives her a measure of responsibility for his actions.

And there are domestic political risks, too.

Due to the fallout from the Iraq War, it’s typical for the government to seek parliamentary approval for military action. With lawmakers on holiday, May could seek it retrospectively when Parliament returns on Monday, and though she lacks a majority, would have a reasonable chance of getting it. A debate might even work well for May, highlighting the divisions between opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong peace campaigner, and his lawmakers.

But Parliament’s support is not a certainty, as May’s predecessor David Cameron discovered in 2013 when he unexpectedly lost a similar vote on Syria. And to lose such a vote having already engaged in military action could create problems for her leadership. A YouGov poll published Thursday found only 22 percent of Britons support a missile attack on Syria.

So for the prime minister to act would reflect a sense that she has little choice. Partly that’s because Trump, after some early wobbles, supported her in blaming Russia for the use of nerve agent against a former double agent on British soil last month. Having urged international action so recently over that, there’s pressure on May to join a response in this case.

There’s also the simple fact that the use of chemical weapons crosses lines -- legal and moral -- while many British lawmakers feel that their failure to act in 2013 contributed to the dire situation that Syria faces now. For May, not to act therefore also carries significant risk.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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